Symphony No.1, Op.72
Symphony No.4, Op.80
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Recorded in July 2001 and April 2002 in Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: June 2004
CD No: CPO 999 774-2
Duration: 67 minutes
Ernst Toch is one of the shadowy figures of twentieth-century music. Born in Vienna in 1887, he moved to America in 1934 (and was naturalised in 1940), and died in Santa Monica in 1964. CPO has been doing him proud with recordings of some string quartets (there are 13) and symphonies; from the latter oeuvre only No.3 has really had any long-standing currency, and that solely due to William Steinberg’s elderly Capitol recording.
This release completes CPO’s recordings of Toch’s seven symphonies. As the opus number suggests, Toch didn’t rush to add to the world’s tally of symphonies; his No.1 is from 1950 when he was 63. The first movement’s glissandos and atmosphere suggest the opening of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (then still to be composed) – eerie, suspenseful, a sort of floating fantasia of long, enigmatic lines harmonised, decorated and coloured with intriguing arpeggios, arabesques and sprays, the movement centrally grounded by fugal determination. The succeeding scherzo seems initially functional, yet the increasing inventiveness and novelty invokes mechanical humour, which contrasts with the lonely woodwind solos and intense, high-lying strings of the slow movement; further contrast comes from marionette-like figuration. The outer movements of this 40-minute symphony are the longest. The finale begins in dissonant unstableness leavened by an optimistic fanfare itself destabilised by angst-ridden strings. These ingredients are the life-blood of the movement’s development and hard-won victory. An intriguing and compelling piece.
The Fourth Symphony fondly remembers Marian MacDowell, the wife of composer Edward MacDowell. She ran an “artists’ colony” in New Hampshire to which Toch was invited several times; she died as he was completing this symphony. Toch inscribes words of tribute between the three movements, here spoken by Alun Francis in a warm Welsh accent. Maybe the text would be better read privately, but the sentiments expressed are brief. The music itself is economical, transparently scored, and ranges from reflection to heartache via terpsichorean whimsy, usually bittersweet in expression, with more than a remembrance of the Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony No.10 (which Toch could have been familiar with despite the work’s then overall incompleteness).
The performances are finely prepared if very occasionally rough in execution, and very well recorded. The opportunity to hear Toch’s music is rare, so this release is warmly welcomed – to get to know and return to these fascinating scores, which are consistently inventive and personal.